Old 'treasured' recordings of Spider John Koerner releasedby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Minnesota folk music legend Spider John Koerner performs Friday night at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis, marking the release of some vintage recordings that feature him in two different phases of his career.
The first phase was a very long time ago -- 47 years. And the recording of his performance on March 23, 1963 was just recently discovered.
Spider John Koerner was in Milwaukee that day, along with his partners Dave Ray and Tony Glover. Earlier, they had spent 10 hours laying down the tracks for what eventually would become a seminal folk blues album, "Blues, Rags and Hollers."
They played a gig that night at a local coffeehouse. At around midnight, Koerner showed up at a Milwaukee radio station, for an interview and performance.
Koerner doesn't remember the radio appearance and nobody knows whether it even aired. Credit Mark Trehus for discovering it -- 47 years later. Trehus, owner of Treehouse Records in Minneapolis, found it while sifting through the late Dave Ray's personal archive, which he had acquired from Ray's widow.
As owner of the local label Nero's Neptune Records and a devoted admirer of Koerner, Trehus knew immediately it was something people had to hear.
"Just the idea that there was unreleased recordings, by the guy I consider to be possibly the greatest living practitioner of American folk music in America today, was just exciting beyond belief for me," Trehus said. "In my world, that was about as good as it gets."
On a recent day, Trehus and Koerner were sitting together at Koerner's favorite hangout on the West Bank, Palmer's Bar. To Trehus, the radio tape of Spider John is a treasure. It's one of the few well-recorded snapshots out there of Koerner playing by himself, outside the studio.
"This is John, very spontaneously relaxed in the studio after a long day, and it's amazing how much energy is still there," Trehus said. "I would be just dead tired."
Koerner cringes when he hears old recordings of himself, and he has yet to listen to the CD of that Milwaukee radio interview, entitled "March, 1963." It's familiar material, though.
Koerner wrote most of the songs, several of which are on the folk classic "Blues, Rags and Hollers," and all of which spring from the same source.
"Most of it is traditional American folk songs, which I got plain and simple by getting some of the collections -- like Lomax collections -- and just looking through them to try and find songs that one way or another struck me," Koerner said.
As Koerner immersed himself in the traditional American folk canon, he became adept at adapting it to his own voice.
"If you get your head into the traditional material, that's a lot of help," Koerner said. "You get phrases you can use, and there's sort of an attitude that comes through them that you get to use. You know, experiences that they portray that you get to use. So that's real helpful. And the rest of it, like I say, is just kind of your own artistic bent."
When you listen to Koerner's music, pay attention to his guitar playing. Some, like Mark Trehus, feel Koerner's system of plucking and strumming, which he invented, is in a class of its own. Koerner thinks of his guitar technique as crude, but effective.
"It started out trying to understand, and maybe even play a little like the old country blues guys," he said. "A lot of those guys had their own style that you can pick up on real quick. That kind of set me free in a way. I realized it didn't make much sense to go around copying anybody -- just to steal from whatever sounded good to you, from whoever or whatever."
The other Spider John Koerner recording Nero's Neptune Records is putting out is a re-release of his 1972 album called "Music is Just a Bunch of Notes." Koerner recorded it with another West Bank blues legend, Willie Murphy, and his band, The Bumblebees. It's always been one of Mark Trehus's favorite Koerner records.
"It's got one of my all time favorite John songs on there, the one solo piece, 'Everybody's Goin' for the Money,' which ... I just think is an absolute stone cold classic," Trehus said.
"Everybody's Goin for the Money" is the closest the album gets to Koerner's early '60s, more traditionalist approach. The vibe on the rest of the songs, fed by Willie Murphy's honky tonk piano and the Bees' horn section, is looser and more spontaneous. There's even some short, spacey spoken word tracks thrown in by a local comedian.
"Music is Just a Bunch of Notes" also contains a DVD of "The Secret of Sleep," a cult film Koerner produced in 1970. Spider John says the package reflects an era.
"This was experimental times," he said. "And to me it shows what was going on in the late '60s on the West Bank, with West Bank attitude, and the performers were readily available around here."
Spider John Koerner, according to Mark Trehus, is in that category of musicians whose influence greatly exceeds their fame. Trehus lists a slew of artists who've been touched by Koerner, from Dylan, Lennon and Bowie, to Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams. But Koerner seems happy with the attention he's received.
"I feel I've gotten my due. ... I have lots of people where I perform who appreciate what I do," said Koerner. "I get a lot of young people who don't know who I am and what kind of music it is I'm playing, who come up and get interested in it. I've got no problem with all that. You could always ask for a little more money. Not much! But outside of that, things are fine, you know?"
Koerner says if his notoriety were any greater, people might come down to Palmer's Bar on the West Bank and bug him, and he wouldn't like that.
Koerner teams up Friday night with Duluth acoustic blues artist Charlie Parr at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.